Code: ABR 008
Date: 1550 - 1650
Dimensions in cm WxHxD: 7 x 30.5 x 7
Ritual dagger (Phur-ba)
Wood with remains of painted decoration.
According to Tibetan tradition the cult and practice of wrathful deity Vajrakila (Tib. rDo rje phur pa) was introduced from India to Tibet during the 8th century by Padmasambhava.
The Phurba (Tib., pronunciation between 'pur-ba' & 'fur-pu', alt. transliterations: phurpa, phurbu or phurpu) is a three-sided peg, stake or nail like ritual implement traditionally associated with Tibetan Buddhism or Bön. The Sanskrit term for phurba is kilaya. Vajrakilaya or Dorje Phurba is the divine 'thoughtform' (Tibetan: sprul pa) that governs the Phurba, Kilaya or Kila.
The phurba or kilaya is one of many iconographic representations of divine "symbolic attributes" (Tibetan: phyag mtshan) of Vajrayana and Hindu deities, respectively. When consecrated and bound for usage, the phurba are a nirmanakaya manifestation of Dorje Phurba or Vajrakilaya. One of the principal methods of working with the phurba and to actualize its essence-quality is to pierce the earth with it; sheath it; or as is common with Himalayan shamanic traditions, to penetrate it vertically, point down into a basket, bowl or cache of rice (or other soft grain if the phurba is wooden). The terms employed for the deity and the tool are interchangable in Western scholarship. In the Himalayan shamanic tradition, the phurba may be considered as axis mundi. Müller-Ebelling, et. al. (2002) affirm that for the majority of Nepalese shaman, the phurba is cognate with the 'world tree', either in their visualisations or in initiatory rites or other rituals.
The phurba is used as a ritual implement to signify stability on a prayer grounds during ceremonies, and only those initiated in its use, or otherwise empowered, may wield it. The energy of the phurba is fierce, wrathful, piercing, affixing, transfixing. The phurba affixes the elemental process of space to the Earth, thereby establishing an energetic continuum. The phurba, particularly those that are wooden are for shamanic healing, harmonizing and energy work and often have two nāgas (Sanskrit for snake, serpent and/or dragon, also refers to a class of supernatural entities or deities) entwined on the blade, reminiscent of the Staff of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes. Phurba often also bear the ashtamangala, swastika, sauwastika and/or other Himalayan, Tantric or Hindu iconography or motifs.
The phurba as peg or nail has the energy of affixation: uniting all that which is disparate or disassociated.
Fabrication and components
The fabrication of phurba is quite diverse. Having pommel, handle, and blade, phurba are often segmented into suites of triunes on both the horizontal and vertical axes, though there are notable exceptions. This compositional algorithm highlights the numerological importance and energetic of three and nine in a potent instrument. Phurba may be constituted and constructed of different materials and material components, such as wood, metal, clay, bone, gems, horn or crystal. Wooden phurba are favoured by shamans for healing and energetic work.
Like the majority of traditional Tibetan metal instruments, the phurba is often made from brass and iron (terrestrial and/or meteoric iron), as well as copper in some cases.
The pommel of the phurba often bears three faces of Vajrakilaya or Dorje Phurba, one joyful, one peaceful, one wrathful, but may bear the umbrella of the ashtamangala or mushroom cap, yidam (like Hayagriva), Snow Lion, or chorten, among other possibilities.
The handle is often constituted by a vajra (or dorje), weaving or knotwork design. The handle generally sports a triune motif as is common to the pommel and blade.
The blade is usually composed of three triangular facets or faces, meeting at the tip. These represent, respectively, the blade's power to transform the negative energies known as the "three poisons" or "root poisons" (Sanskrit: mula klesha) of attachment/craving/desire, delusion/ignorance/misconception, and aversion/fear/hate.
Energetic and ritual usage
As a tool of exorcism, the phurba may be employed to hold demons or thoughtforms in place (once they have been expelled from their human hosts, for example) in order that their mindstream may be re-directed and their inherent obscurations transmuted. More esoterically, the phurba may serve to bind and pin down negative energies or obscurations from the mindstream of an entity, person or thoughtform, including the thoughtform generated by a group, project and so on, to administer purification.
The phurba as an iconographical implement is also directly related to Dorje Phurba or Vajrakilaya, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism who is often seen with his consort Dorje Phagmo or Vajravarahi. He is embodied in the phurba as a means of destroying (in the sense of finalising and then freeing) violence, hatred, and aggression by tying them to the blade of the phurba and then transmuting them with its tip. The pommel may be employed in blessings. It is therefore that the phurba is not a physical weapon, but a spiritual implement, and should be regarded as such. The Phurba often bears the epithet Diamantine Dagger of Emptiness (see Shunyata, Void, Space, Æther and 0 (number)).
As Müller-Ebelling, et. al. (2002: p. 55) states:
“The magic of the Magical Dagger comes from the effect that the material object has on the realm of the spirit. The art of tantric magicians or lamas lies in their visionary ability to comprehend the spiritual energy of the material object and to willfully focus it in a determined direction. (…)
The tantric use of the phurba encompasses the curing of disease, exorcism, killing demons, meditation, consecrations (puja), and weather-making. The blade of the phuba is used for the destruction of demonic powers. The top end of the phurba is used by the tantrikas for blessings.”
As Beer (1999: p.277-278) states, transfixing phurba, scorpion and Padmasambhava:
“The sting of the scorpion's whip-like tail transfixes and poisons its prey, and in this respect, it is identified with the wrathful activity of the ritual dagger or phurba. Padmasambhava's biography relates how he received the siddhi of the phurba transmission at the great charnel ground of Rajgriha from a gigantic scorpion with nine heads, eighteen pincers and twenty-seven eyes. This scorpion reveals the phurba texts from a triangular stone box hidden beneath a rock in the cemetery. As Padmasambhava reads this terma text spontaneous understanding arises, and the heads, pincers, and eyes of the scorpion are 'revealed' as different vehicles or yanas of spiritual attainment. Here, at Rajgriha, Padmasambhava is given the title of 'the scorpion guru', and in one of his eight forms as Guru Dragpo or Pema Drago ('wrathful lotus'), he is depicted with a scorpion in his left hand. As an emblem of the wrathful phurba transmission the image of the scorpion took on a strong symbolic meaning in the early development of the Nyingma or 'ancient school' of Tibetan Buddhism...".
To work with the spirits and deities of the earth, land and place, indigenous people of the Himalaya and the Mongolian Steppe pegged, nailed and/or pinned down the land. Phurba is associated with the Vajrakilaya from India though may have arisen independently from the tent pegs of the nomadic peoples. The nailing of the phurba, is comparable to the idea of breaking the earth (turning the sod) in other traditions and the rite of laying the foundation stone. It is an ancient shamanic idea that has common currency throughout the region; it is prevalent in the Bön tradition and is also evident in the Vajrayana tradition. According to shamanic lore current throughout the region, "...the mountains were giant pegs that kept the Earth in place and prevented it from moving." (Kerrigan, et. al., 1998: p27) Mountains such as Amnye Machen, according to folklore were held to have been brought from other lands just for this purpose. Chorten (compare cairn) are a development of this tradition and akin to phurba.
(Kerrigan, et. al., 1998: p27) states that:
"Prayer flags and stone pillars throughout the country also pierce the land. Even the pegs of the nomads’ yak wool tents are thought of as sanctifying the ground that lies beneath...".
Traditions such as that of the phurba may be considered a human cultural universal in light of foundation stone rites and other comparable rites documented in the disciplines of Anthropology and Ethnography; eg., turning of the soil as a placation and votive offering to spirits of place and to preparation of the land as a rite to ensure fertility and bountiful yield.
Traditional lineage usage: anthology of case studies
In the Kathmandu Valley, sacred for its unabashed fertility and its wealth of temples and sacred sites, the phurba is still in usage by shamans, magicians, tantrikas and lamas of different ethnic backgrounds. The phurba is used particularly intensively by the Tamang, Gurung and Newari Tibeto-Burmese tribes. The phurba is also employed by the Tibetans native to Nepal (the Bhotyas), the Sherpas, and the Tibetans living in Dharamasala.
Müller-Ebelling, et. al. (2002: p. 29) chart the difference of the phurba traditions between the jhankris and the gubajus:
“The phurbas of the gubajus are different from those of the jhankris. As a rule, they have only one head on which there is a double vajra as shown here. Gubajus focus on the head as a mirror image of themselves in order to meditatively connect with the power of the phuba. The three or more heads of the upper area of the phurba indicate the collection of energies that the jhankris use.”
A "Bhairab phurba" is an important healing tool of the tantric Newari gubajus. As Müller-Ebelling, et. al. (2002: p. 55) state:
“Tantric priests (guruju) use Bhairab phurbas for the curing of disease and especially for curing children's diseases. For these cases the point of the phurba blade is dipped into a glass or a bowl of water, turned and stirred. The sick child is then given the magically charged water as medicine to drink.”
Müller-Ebelling, et. al. (2002: p. ?) interviewed Mohan Rai who in an interview is directly quoted as saying:
“Without the phurba inside himself, the shaman has no consciousness'...'The shaman himself [sic] is the phurba; he assumes it form in order to fly into other worlds and realities.”
Therefore, to extrapolate, the phurba is identified with consciousness and the root of sentience, the buddha-nature.
Müller-Ebelling et. al. (2002) affirm that some Kukri may be considered phurba, as ultimately, everything that approximates a vertical form. The phurba then is a phallic polysemy and cognate with lingam ~ the generative instrument of Shiva that is metonymic of the primordial energy of the Universe. The phurba as lingam, actualizes the yoni essence-quality of whatever it penetrates.
The wrathful heruka Vajrakilaya is a yidam deity (or godform, refer thoughtform) who embodies the energetic activity of all the buddhas, manifesting in an intensly wrathful yet compassionate form in order to subjugate the delusion and negativity that can arise as obstacles to the practice of Dharma.
Vajrakilaya as tool
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the practice of Vajrakilaya states that:
"Vajrakilaya, or kila, means something sharp, and something that pierces – a dagger. A dagger that is so sharp it can pierce anything, while at the same time nothing can pierce it. That is the quality. This sharp and piercing energy is what is used to practice and out of the many infinite, endless Vajrayana methods this happens to be one of most important methods."
Vajrakilaya as deity
Vajrakilaya is a significant Vajrayana deity to transmute and transcend obstacles and obscurations. Padmasambhava achieved realisation through practicing 'Yangdag Heruka' (Tibetan: yang dag he ru ka) but he first practiced Vajrakilaya to clean and clear obstacles and obscurations.
Vajrakilaya is also understood as the embodiment of activities of the Buddha mind. Sometimes Vajrakilaya is perceived as the wrathful vajrayana form of Vajrapani, according to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Many great masters both in India and Tibet, but especially in Tibet, have practiced Vajrakilaya (especially in the Nyingma lineage, and among the Kagyu and also within the Sakyapas). The Sakyapa's main deity, besides Hevajra is Vajrakumara or Vajrakilaya.
Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche and a significant number of lamas within the Kagyu and Nyingma engaged Vajrakilaya sadhana.
Vajrakilaya also known as Vajrakumar is the deity of the magic phurba dagger, a symbol of the sharp point of wisdom of dharmakaya by the power of one pointed concentration. This 'one-pointed' (Sanskrit: eka graha) focus is a concerted mindfulness on the unity and interdependence of all dharmas. This one-pointed focus is understood as 'applying oneself fully' (Tibetan: sgrim pa). Vajrakilaya is a favoured tantric archetypal deity embraced by the Nyingmapa. The awesome and wrathful manifestation of this empty yet apparent deity assists practitioners in clearing the obstructions to realisation.
A common manifestation of Vajrakilla has three heads, six arms, and four legs. Vajrakilaya’s three right hands except for the right front one held vajras with five and nine prongs. The right front one makes a mudra as granting boons with open palm. Vajrakilaya’s three left hands hold a flaming triple wishfulfilling jewel or triratna, a trident and the phurba. Vajrakilaya’s back is covered by the freshly flayed skin of the elephant representing ignorance, with the legs tied in front. A human skin is tied diagonally across his chest with the hands lying flat on Vajrakilaya’s stomach. A rope ripples over his body with severed heads hanging by their hair. A knee length loin cloth winds around his belly belted with a tiger skin complete with tail, claws and head. This deity wears naga as earrings, bracelets anklets and a cord over his chest and a hair ornament. Vajrakilaya’s faces are round and small compared to the tall body. Despite the large fangs and bulging eyes and his wrathful appearance, Vajrakilaya is perceived as having a benevolent demeanor.
Vajrakilaya and terma
There are a number of terma teachings founded on Vajrakilaya. For instance, there are treasure teachings from Jigme Lingpa, Ratna Lingpa and Nyang-rel Nyima Ozer.
Vajrakilaya Puja within the Sakyapa
Vajrakilaya Puja has long unbroken lineage within the Sakyapa. Vajrakilaya Puja was received by Khön Nagendra Rakshita and his younger sibling Vajra Ratna from Padmasambhava. Since then it has been transmitted in the Khön lineage and has been enacted every year until the present. Even in the challenging times of 1959 His Holiness the Sakya Trizin maintained the tradition.
Beer, Robert , 2003. Les symboles du bouddhisme Tibétain. Albin Michel. Pp. 160-165
Boord, Martin J. , 1993. The Cult of the Deity Vajrakila. Tring: Institute of Buddhist Studies.
Hummel, Siegbert, 1952. "Der lamaistiche ritualdolch (Phur-bu) und die alt-vorderorientalischen "Nagelmenschen" ", Asiatische studien, Vol. VI (1952) Nos. 1/4. Asiatische studien, Vol. VI (1952) Nos. 1/4. Pp. 41-51, 9 Abb
Huntington, John C. , 1975. The Phur-pa, Tibetan Ritual Daggers, Artibus Asiae, Supplementum, XXXIII. Ascona: Artibus Asiae.
Marcotty, Thomas, 1987. Dagger Blessing - The Tibetan Phurpa Cult: Reflections and Materials. Delhi: B.R.Publ..
Mayer, Robert, 1992. "Observations on the Tibetan Phur-Ba and the Indian Kila", The Buddhist forum, Vol. II: Seminar Papers 1988-1990, ed. T. Skorupski. London: SOAS. Pp. 163-192, 2 figs